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Dancing the cinematic tango

Sebastian Partogi
Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Tue, March 21, 2017 | 08:46 am
Dancing the cinematic tango

Movie directors Djenar Maesa Ayu and Kan Lumé are synchronizing their visions — both as art collaborators and romantic partners. (JP/Sebastian Partogi)

When two movie directors collaborate, both professionally and personally, one of the expected results is a movie. Movie director Djenar Maesa Ayu and her Singaporean counterpart Kan Lumé lived up to expectations when the two co-directed hUSh, which was recently screened at the Kineforum cinema café in Jakarta.

Previously, Djenar created three films and won the prestigious Citra award for the best new director and best adapted screenplay (with Indra Herlambang) for her debut movie Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet! (They Say I’m a Monkey!) in 2008. Her third movie, NAY, meanwhile, won the NETPAC Award at the 2015 Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (JAFF).

Meanwhile, Lumé already had eight movies up his sleeve prior to this, winning several awards, the most recent of which being the NETPAC Award at the 2014 JAFF for The Naked DJ.

“That [movie] is emotionally hard hitting,” a 27-year-old moviegoer named Valentine Merrita Sari said shortly after watching the screening.

The movie indeed has a heavy subject: the harrowing epidemic of sexual violence against women rampant in Indonesia, as in other parts of the globe, kept alive by the patriarchal sociocultural system embodying the objectification of women’s bodies as one of its main manifestations.

It adopts the “mockumentary” format to tell a strictly fictitious story through conventions often used in documentaries, such as media footage and one-on-one interviews.

Read also: 'hUSh' unlocks silence on sexual violence

It moves from the political realm to the personal as it reveals the aftermath of sexual violence through one-on-one interviews carried out by the directors with the main character, Cinta (played by Cinta Ramlan).

The character is an aspiring singer/songwriter who traveled to Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara (NTB), before returning to her Bali home after an attempt to make it big in Jakarta’s entertainment scene brought her nothing but heartache and disappointment.

The story gets a little disturbing as Cinta candidly speaks about the lifelong aftermath of sexual violence as she has experienced it: self-harm, abusive relationships, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and so on.

Djenar’s four movies have all dealt with women’s issues, particularly those pertaining to structural gender injustice.

“I can always talk about the same thing but I try to make it different by playing with the structure,” Djenar, 44, told the Post during an interview. “When I watched Naked DJ, I spontaneously thought ‘this is it! We need to make this kind of movie!’.”

The movie is a Singaporean documentary about musician and political activist Chris Ho.

Djenar and Lumé, who are romantic partners, have known each other since 2008, when they met at JAFF.

“From the beginning, we felt a very strong connection. So we started to look for ways to work together. We found it quite easy to write the script, while he contributed a lot in visuals. Ultimately, you can see how our styles blend, it’s our baby,” she said.

Instead of turning the movie into a documentary, however, both directors agreed to take the mockumentary approach. They started writing the script in December 2015 and the film was premiered at last year’s JAFF.

“We used the format to evoke understanding and empathy. Most men don’t have the patience to sit down, listen and have empathy for women who have been raped. So why not force the audience to sit through it and listen, maybe 20 percent of the audience will change their minds [about the issue],” Lumé, 40, said.

Read also: Indonesian parents encouraged to discuss sexual health with teens

Furthermore, he said he wanted the movie’s unconventional format to help spark discussions on the issue.

Although Djenar acknowledged that it might be hard to find sexual assault survivors in Indonesia who were willing to speak up for a true-blue documentary format, she said that was not the reason why they had made a mockumentary.

The reason was purely aesthetic: Lumé said both directors wanted to explore the latest trend in cinema, with postmodernism blurring the lines between different formats and genres, including that between documentary and fiction.

“This movie finds its roots in the Italian neorealism of the 1940s, with movies depicting the Second World War where buildings were being bombed, everybody was crying and screaming […] Shot on location, frequently using non-professional actors re-enacting the scenes, depicting the suffering of the people,” Lumé explained.

Both directors said that when they screened the movie, most of the audience was unaware that it was a fictional story due to its strong documentary format. Were there some concerns about Cinta’s privacy, about people singer’s personal life?

“We discussed [this possibility] with Cinta. She said ‘I need to this because I’m a woman and this is an issue that needs to be talked about’ and supported us right through the end. We are grateful for her bravery,” Djenar said.

Cinta’s bravery has apparently paid off: many women survivors in the audience have approached both women, thanking them for raising this issue and putting it on the big screen to tell their stories.

“It’s hard for movies like this to get investors. [Being award-winning directors] never makes anything easier, not just for us. Even famous American and French award-winning [non-mainstream] filmmakers also struggle,” Lumé said regarding the challenges of nonmainstream movie-making.

While working on hUSh, Djenar also acted in director Hanung Bramantyo’s Kartini, slated to be launched early this year. In this movie based on the life of national hero Raden Ajeng Kartini, Djenar plays Kartini’s stepmother, Moeryam, alongside Dian Sastrowardoyo, who is the central character.

“As a director who is still learning, being directed by another filmmaker is a huge learning process for me,” she said.